Martin is taking Taryn's advice and is on his way to visit his dad. He woke up early and worked out again. He dialed the intensity down and managed a solid thirty minutes of work without throwing up. He made his usual smoothie, showered, and shaved for the first time in two weeks before heading out.
Martin clicks the radio on and flips through his usual channels. The classic rock station is on a commercial break. Same for the alternative rock station. He passes country, pop, and a few Spanish stations before settling on one of the oldies stations. It's a band and a song he knows well, Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Proud Mary.” Martin first heard the song on 8-track, in his father's garage. His father played the album every morning while he was working out. Martin settles his right hand back on the steering wheel and smiles. He remembers the song, humming the tune and singing an occasional lyric. The song brings his memory back to the clanking sound of iron weight plates, the smell of chalk and dampness and dust. He can hear his father grunting against the weight of the barbells and dumbbells, his breaths huffing and chugging violently. Martin remembers the power, remembers wondering about why his father was so mad. He didn't understand where that kind of power and rage would come from. His father's white knuckles and bared teeth and rumbling grunts made it seem that the weights were somehow responsible for some great loss in his life. They seemed to be his father's prisoners and they needed to be punished.
Martin turns up the volume. The song plays loudly through the last few minutes of the twenty minute drive to the facility. After the song finishes, a quick news jingle interrupts the music, Power Nintey-seven's ninety-seven-second news:
“The search continues today for Becky Saunders, a tenth-grader from Faulkner High School. Jennifer was first reported missing four days ago and authorities are asking friends and family and anyone who might have information on Jennifer's whereabouts to contact local police or simply dial nine one one for access to the proper authorities.”
“Jesus. Becky?” Martin whispers to himself, listening for anymore information. This is the first Martin has heard of the girl's disappearance, even though Faulkner High is Juliette's school. Becky is the daughter of Allen Sanders, a local police officer, who went to junior high and high school with Martin.
As the news continues, Martin turns the volume down. He isn't interested in the local political race, or in the weather report that closes out the news break. He wonders what he should do about it. He considers how he would start the conversation with an old school acquaintance whose daughter has gone missing?
“Hey Allen, been a long time. How's it going?”
He shakes his head at the absurdity. He tries another way:
“Hey, Allen, I heard about Becky. I'm so sorry. Anything you need, you let me know.”
Martin decides there is no way he will simply call Allen Saunders out of the blue. He considers what kinds of phone calls he would want to get if Juliette suddenly disappeared.
He wouldn't want to hear from anyone. He wouldn't want well wishes, condolences, anything but news from police or FBI agents.
Martin pulls his truck into a parking lot. The sign is aged wood, three feet off the ground and at least fifteen feet long with ornate shrubs at each end. Elk Hollow Assisted Living. The ads online also say “Memory Care.” It is one of the newer full care retirement facilities in the city, but the fresh paint and more modern design doesn't ease his mind about the place. It is a nightmare. It is the worst place to end up, in Martin's mind. He'd rather go down from a heart attack, or get hit by a bus, or be electrocuted or shot or attacked by a shark or nearly anything else. Anything besides dying slowly, painfully, expensively, and mostly alone.
There is a man inching along the sidewalk in front of the truck, leaning heavily on his walker. The man stops, staring at the ground. He stands there, motionless, for moments. Martin is treating the man like a wild animal, waiting for him to move on before getting out of the truck. He doesn't want to startle the man, or interrupt his walk in any way. He doesn't want to interfere with the natural environment here.
Suddenly the man coughs and stands a little more upright. He is back in the present, and he turns slowly around and shuffles back up the sidewalk, disappearing around a false waterfall and stone fountain.
Martin takes a breath.
“Good morning, welcome to Elk Hollow.”
The receptionist isn't smiling, not outright. Martin can't see her teeth, but there is the sense, the essence, of a smile. The essence is in her eyes, as well, a practiced show of gentle empathy.
“Good morning,” Martin says.
“How can I help you?”
Martin twists, turns to look behind himself, back toward the door. When he turns back toward reception, he can't look at her. His eyes follow the outline of the welcome desk, up the wall to the ceiling. He feels his phone in his pocket, considers pretending he has a call he has to answer to he can walk back outside without seeming weird. But he looks down and his eyes meet hers. Her smile widens.
“Are you here to see a resident?” the woman asks.
The door calls to him.
“I'm... not sure, yet,” he says.
“You're not sure if you're here to see a resident?” the woman asks, her considerate smile finally cracking slightly. Martin knows he could be out and in his truck and back on the road listening to music or his anger CDs in under thirty seconds. The woman's questions are making him think, making him consider the pain he is stepping back into. He could go fishing instead, or go see a movie, or go do anything else in the world.
But then he would have to take the call from Taryn and admit that he didn't do what he promised. He breathes out through his nose, resigned.
“Sorry, I am. I am here to see a resident. I'm... I'm Martin. I'm Martin Bell.”
Martin didn't prepare for this. As he introduces himself, he realizes he shouldn't have to. The staff here should all know who he is. He should be making regular trips to see his father. He should be checking in with the staff regularly enough that when he walks in, they all say hi to him, they all know him by name and he knows them. This realization hits him mid sentence and he stammers through the rest of his awkward request.
“Okay, and what is the resident's name?” the woman asks. She isn't shaken by his flustered stuttering. She has seen this many times.
“Sorry, yeah, of course. Bell. It's Tyson Bell.”
“Oh yes, Mr. Bell. Quite a football fan, that one,” she says, her smile now showing two neat rows of bright white teeth. Martin tries to return the smile but it twists into more of a wince. His father was a football fan. Now, his attachment to football is something else.
She hands Martin a clipboard, pen attached.
“Can I have you sign in here on the sign-in sheet?”
Martin looks at the requested information: name; date; time; relationship to the resident.
“How do you know Mr. Bell?” she asks.
Martin fills in the blank squares.
“He was my...” Martin starts before shaking his head in apology. “Sorry, he is... my father.”
The smile fades as she rolls her lips inward. She goes back to looking at her screen, only glancing up at Martin for one quick, nervous smile. The information goes into the computer. She has to check on Tyson Bell's status, what room he is in, and whether or when he is allowed to have visitors.
“And this is the first time you've come to Elk Hollow?” she asks.
Another wincing smile.
“Yes,” Martin says.
She doesn't look up from her screen, but nods her head. She punches the keys for a few more seconds and stares, reading something.
“Okay. Well thank you, Martin, it looks like your father has been cleared to have visitors today, so if you take a seat over there, a nurse will be out shortly to show you to his room.”
Martin nods his thanks. He finds a chair with a side table of magazines. He grabs the top one and opens it, knowing he won't be doing much reading. Looking around the lobby and nearby hallway, he can see three residents. One, a very old man with a walker, is being escorted by a nurse. He is talking, she is nodding, but nothing of value is being said. A woman is being wheeled through the lobby by her own nurse. Another woman is walking slowly along the far wall of the hallway, stopping to view the watercolor paintings hanging there; a seascape with seagulls; a farmhouse; a street scene, probably in Paris. While the woman is staring into this painting, an aid approaches her. The aid is not happy. The woman is not supposed to be out walking by herself, apparently. But when she is scolded, she doesn't respond. She simply turns in the direction the aid pulls her and begins walking that way. It seems any direction would be fine.
The magazine Martin blindly chose is US Weekly. On the cover stands some celebrity, eyes wide at the sight of the paparazzi, the word "Scandal" in red across the bottom of the page. The headline suggests that the reader will never guess what so and so said to so and so when they met at the MTV movie awards. The actor and actress are decked out in black tie formal wear. The man is squinting his eyes into the cameras. The woman has one leg bent and pressed across the other leg, a hand on her hip while the other holds a large, silver clutch. They've both done this a lot, Martin thinks.
The woman who was scolded by the nurse comes back. She is still walking at a slow amble. Now, closer, Martin sees that she is wearing a dress. It isn't the sequinned ball gown in his magazine. It is an old sun dress, now off white from the years of dirt and wear, its blue floral patterns faded from what Martin imagines was a dazzling Cerulean blue, originally.
A nurse approaches.
Martin stands and throws down the magazine like he wasn't supposed to be reading it
“I'm Janine,” she says, offering her hand. Martin shakes it and manages a normal smile. “It is great to meet you,” she says, “ready?”
Martin nods. They make their way down the hallway and turn right into another. After a short walk they are at room 132.
“He does talk about you quite a bit, just so you know. He asks about your girls, too, though he
doesn't usually remember their names.”
She knocks on the door. A gruff "come in" warbles from the other side.
The door opens into a nice, well-kept living room. There is a couch and a lazy-boy, a small dining table, a book shelf and a table for the TV. A man is sitting in the lazy-boy. The TV is playing a football game.
“Hi, Mr. Bell!” she is nearly yelling. “How are you feeling today?”
“Feeling good, feeling good,” he says, his eyes never leaving the television.
“How are the Bills doing?”
“Givin em hell!” he says, pumping his fist. Martin notices the fist. It is smaller than he remembers, smaller than at any other point in the man's adult life. The knuckles are like walnuts below pallid skin, rounded mounds at the end of wrinkled, twisted hands. The white skin looks thin, like the veins might break the surface and bleed. As Tyson pumps his fist, Martin watches the skin under his triceps sag and sway back and forth. Martin imagines someone deflating his father, and the man is reaching the end of the air pressure. His voice sounds the same, like someone is stealing the air in his lungs. There is a slur to his speech, a wavy timbre, like he is tired or drunk.
“Those Bills, they always do give 'em hell, don't they?” Janine says. Tyson rocks weakly back and forth, a shadow of the impassioned game day movements of his youth and middle age. Cataracts have dulled the shine in his eyes a little, but there is still a fire burning in there, somewhere deep and nearly forgotten.
Janine continues: “Well, as you may have noticed, I have a visitor here to see you.”
Tyson, never taking his eyes off of the game, “Yeah, that's good, that's good. Thank you, Wendy.”
Janine turns toward Martin.
“One of our nurses is named Wendy, and now he calls all of us Wendy. It's a compliment, really, Wendy is awesome.” She turns back to Tyson, “Mr. Bell, it's someone really special, someone you haven't seen in awhile.”
“Yes, good, good, thank you,” he says.
“Tyson, can I pause the game for a minute so you can talk to your visitor?”
Tyson doesn't respond, but it is obvious he doesn't like when they stop him from watching his football. When Janine moves in to pause the game, Tyson doesn't protest. His trembling hands grip the arms of his chair and the finger tips dig into the fabric. His feet begin to bounce up and down on the ground. He stares down into his lap, annoyed.
“Thank you, Tyson, that's very nice of you. Someone who you've been telling the nurses about is here.”
Tyson finally looks up from the TV. When he catches Martin's eyes there is a glimmer of recognition. Tyson knows the man standing in his entryway looks familiar, but he can't place exactly who Martin is.
“Yes... yes, I know you. Good, good, I know him, Wendy. Thank you.”
“That's great, Tyson. I'm going to leave you two to talk and I'll be outside if you need me. Just click your clicker.”
“Yes, yes I remember you, young man. You like football, don't you? You like football. Come sit, the Bills are playing. Can you believe coach Levy? He is coaching circles around Schottenheimer.”
Martin sits on the couch, a few feet from Tyson's chair.
“You believe Copeland fumbled that kick off in the first quarter? I could have held onto that ball. Guys just can't take hits like they used to.”
Martin sits, listening, the way he listened five years ago when he first noticed his father's speech patterns shift, when he first noticed the missed appointments and the calls from friends and neighbors about increasingly odd behavior. Three years ago, they watched the Super Bowl together and Tyson was still lightning quick with his football stats and Super Bowl history. But he also went to the bathroom at halftime and forgot why he was there and where he was in general and screamed and banged his fists against the door for someone to help him. When Martin couldn't convince him to unlock the door, Martin broke it. Tyson had peed himself and didn't know what to do about it. So he'd taken all of his clothes off and stuffed them in the toilet. Martin had to stop him from pressing the flushing lever. The water was already overflowing onto the floor.
“Thurman Thomas is really getting after it today, he came to play,” Tyson says. “I think he is going to end up rushing for one hundred and eighty six yards, three touchdowns.”
Martin knows this is accurate. He knows because he watched this game with his father when it happened. The AFC championship game, January 23rd, 1994. He watched it again, years later, on NFL's Greatest Games on ESPN. He would watch it again on VHS and again, and again, with his obsessed father. To hear his dad ramble on about football as a kid was fun. It was cool, the other dads didn't know nearly as much about football. Martin felt his dad was smarter, tougher than the other kids' dads.
But now, in this dark room with its calm green walls and its light lavender bed spreads and pillow cases and its off-white carpet, Martin doesn't want to hear about the '93 season's AFC championship. He doesn't want to hear the same lines about solid running and Marv Levy's strategic genius.
“When they got Marcus Allen, I thought coach Levy was crazy. A Raider, an LA Raider? I just
didn't see the potential. I didn't see what coach saw. But I guess that's why he's the coach.”
Martin notices the inflection, and the use of present tense, “That's why he's the coach.” Martin realizes he doesn't have to be here, that it doesn't matter that he is Tyson's son. He could be his brother, or his doctor, or some stranger off the street. Tyson would talk this way to anyone who would listen, and probably talks this way even when no one is listening. The thought takes hold of him, that he doesn't matter, that he can't do anything to help, that this is just the way things are now.
It doesn't stop him from trying to engage.
“It's been...” Martin starts. Tyson doesn't move and Martin wonders about his hearing. He knows he should be aware of any hearing problems his dad has, but he isn't sure. He raises his volume
“It's been awhile since I was here last.”
“Good, good, now look at this kid, look at that speed off the line. Already over one hundred yards rushing. They are destroying the defensive line, destroying them, just running through them like they're playing some pee-wee team.”
“I like your new room,” Martin yells.
“The way the game should be played,” Tyson says.
“Mr. Bell?” Martin yells. He wants his father's attention, just for a moment. He wants him to look away and break out of this football fan autopilot.
“Tyson,” he yells, and he places his hand on his father's shoulder. Tyson jerks his head sideways to look, as if he didn't know anyone else was in the room.
“Whoa, you scared me, young man,” Tyson says.
“I'm sorry if I scared you.”
“You here to watch the game?”
“Yes, sir, here to watch the game.”
“You better not be one of those Kansas City fans. You from Kansas City?”
Martin shakes his head.
“No, sir. Bills all the way.”
Tyson smiles and nods.
“Yes... yes, that's damn right.”
“How is the food in a place like this, pretty good?” Martin asks.
“You hungry, young man?” Tyson asks. His voice wavers again. There is a deep rasp to the words, like he needs to clear his throat, but the source of the falter is deeper. The words dribble out of his mouth like they are being pulled back down the throat, like there are forces tugging at the sounds from both sides. Each word takes an extra second or two to finish. Martin can hear a certain familiarity in the cadence, in the word choices and the inflection at certain points, but overall the man speaking to him in this warm, pastel room is not the man who raised him.
“I guess, now you mention it, I'm pretty hungry myself. Could go for one of those footlongs they peddle around here. A good hot footlong and a cold beer would be mighty fine on a day like today, mighty fine.”
Martin sees that he will have to speak through the football prism if he is going to learn anything about his father's living conditions. Tyson immediately disengages when the conversation pulls away from football.
“You're hungry? Are they giving you enough to eat around here?”' Martin asks. “Are they feeding you enough?”
“He has three receptions for over twenty yards, too, incredible!”
Martin has lost him again.
“And you know what else? His blocking isn't have bad, either. He threw a block on the middle linebacker in the last quarter that would make any offensive line coach proud. And that was giving away, what? Forty pounds? Fifty? No, they're too good, the Bills are going to the Super Bowl this year for sure, absolutely. There's nothing that could stop them, absolutely nothing, absolutely.”
Martin realizes he is still holding Tyson's shoulder, realizes he's been squeezing a little too hard. As he takes his hand away, he feels the sharp edge of the clavicle poking up into the skin. He feels the edge of the scapula, feels the thin, weakened skin shift over it. The shoulder has lost nearly all of its muscle tone. What used to be round, ridged mountains of muscle from a lifetime of construction is fading away. The mountains are collapsing in on themselves, smoothing to foothills, to gentle mounds. Soon, they will retreat fully, to a graveyard of jagged bones.
“You're right, dad. They are going to the Super Bowl this year.”
Martin waits for a response that he knows he isn't going to get.
“Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. They are going to the Super Bowl and they are going to win. Bills win, Bills win.”
“Going to be a great year,” Martin says.
Tyson looks to Martin and squints. There is a flash of some new recognition. Tyson is straining to place this man in his life's memories.
“What's your name?”
“Martin, Mr. Bell,” Martin says, offering his hand, “my name is Martin.”
Tyson's eyes widen with a revelation. He takes Martin's hand and shakes it. He doesn't shake as hard as he used to, but Martin feels a familiarity in the squeeze and smiles.
“Yes, good, good, Martin. I knew a Martin, once. I used to work with a Martin. Good worker, tough.”
Tyson drops out of his recognition and goes back to staring into the TV and talking mostly to himself. Martin sits quietly with him for awhile, watching a game he has seen many times, clapping when Tyson claps, agreeing when Tyson says something about coach Levy or a Chiefs' misstep. Martin wants some recognition, just a few seconds of a father talking to a son, and the son answering his father. He wants a few simple words that suggest his father isn't gone forever, a living corpse in this green and lavender tomb.
He doesn't get a few seconds. He doesn't get a few words. In the end, the Bills beat the Chiefs and celebrate their advancement to the Super Bowl, and Martin stands and claps and cheers alongside Tyson Bell. He gets a hand shake and a slap on the back, and he gets to watch his father stop the tape, hit rewind, and press play to start the process all over again.
Martin makes it through eight minutes of the first quarter before he gets up to leave. Tyson doesn't notice Martin's red face. He doesn't notice when Martin uses his sleeve to wipe his eyes. Tyson doesn't respond when Martin offers his thanks for the game or when he says, “I'll see you later, dad.”
Martin is through the lobby and out the door before the receptionist can finish her goodbye. When he pushes the unlock button the truck is quiet. He pulls on the handle. The door is still locked. He pushes unlock again. He presses harder, points it toward the front hood, holds it up higher in the air.
“Piece of shit,” his hisses. He presses it again, and again, harder and harder before hitting the key fob with his other hand. He curls his hand into a fist and slams it into the keys. He smashes them into the palm of his hand. He feels the aching sting of the stitches on his knuckles but doesn't stop. He doesn't stop until he notices one of the residents staring at him from behind a walker. The frail old man is hunched over, his mouth open and his eyes wide. The two men stare at each other, the old man on his walker and Martin against the truck's driver side door.
Martin looks down at the key fob. He lays his finger on the unlock button and presses, gently. The truck beeps and the door clicks. He gets in the truck and grips the wheel. He doesn't leave until the little old man is gone and his eyes are dry.